Pizza in a Shoebox: eLearning in a Responsive Web Design World

I’m a fan of Roman-style pizza—the kind with a perfectly crispy, very flat crust.  Judicious amounts of sauce and meat and cheese, all topped with fresh basil or arugula. It’s the ideal combination of tastes, smells, looks and textures.

If, however, instead of baking those ingredients on a flat pizza stone, I tried to cook those exact same ingredients some other way—say, inside a shoebox—I would clearly not get the same experience. I might get a calzone or I might just get a doughy mess, but it would not be the magic that is pizza. 

This is an apt metaphor for what can happen when people try to take an eLearning experience that was developed for one device, and retro-mash into another device without adequate planning and experience. 

A building’s foundation defines its footprint, which defines its frame, which shapes the facade. Each phase of the architectural process is more immutable, more unchanging than the last. Creative decisions quite literally shape a physical space, defining the way in which people move through its confines for decades or even centuries.  Working on the web, however, is a wholly different matter.

Ethan Marcotte, A List Apart

We are living in a world where the number of browsers, input modes, and devices keeps increasing.  We all like our devices and we’d all like to picture a perfectly democratic world where anyone can learn anything anytime anywhere on any device.

The advent of HTML5 and responsive web design (RWD) has made it possible to deliver content in that utopian model.  A responsive architecture approach allows users to interface fluidly with all their devices, no matter the size or shape of the screen.

But online browsing, shopping and gaming don’t have the same requirements and necessary outcomes as online learning—just because RWD gives us a way to toss the ingredients inside the shoebox, it doesn’t mean we’re going to be happy with the outcome. 

Educators have a responsibility to consider the fidelity of the learning experience and the potential unintentional consequences of ubiquitous content-delivery.  Fortunately, we’re not doomed to a mushy pizza world.  But, great outcomes do require an ability to make well-considered, strategic decisions during the development of the learning objectives, the instructional design, and the content development to ensure that the learner, the experience and the device have all been defined and planned for from Day One. 

There are no out-of-the-box eLearning tools that support RWD and each site and project requires some custom crafting.  This begins with the fundamental ideas: simple site layout, coding, and navigation.  But beyond that, high quality multi-device eLearning development recognizes that each platform delivers a different user experience and that each school’s access and technology are key parts of the recipe.  If your content has a lot of reading involved, you might want a PDF for printing for schools with limited Internet access, and also a reader app for the Chromebooks.  Does your learning experience require a real keyboard to work efficiently?  If so, how are you going to allow for those working on tablets? 

If you’re lucky, you are starting from scratch and can use a parallel backward-design strategy to create a content delivery experience that works on all the platforms you deem necessary.  But even if you have great content that just needs to be updated for today’s technologies, there is always a way to design and deliver a meaningful user experience.


In July 2019, Meighan Maloney joined our extended network of alumni.